Boris Johnson has been elected as the new leader of the Conservative party, and there is already plenty we can learn of the new Premiership simply by looking at the cabinet. Controversial figures such as Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson have been brought back into government, while moderates like Phillip Hammond have either resigned or been replaced. With Johnson staying firm on his deadline of October 31st to leave European Union we can be sure of one thing: This government will either be the making or breaking of Brexit.
Traditionally Prime Ministers have walked into 10 Downing Street with a sense of compromise, a desire to build bridges, and a wish to unite various sections of the population. Not this time. Johnson has walked into power with an unwavering promise – to deliver Brexit by Halloween, and to free us from the much despised Irish backstop.
The more moderate influences have been cast aside and with them the excuses must go too. Indeed, Theresa May’s failure to deliver an acceptable withdrawal agreement has often been chalked up to a lack of belief in Brexit from the people in charge of delivering it. Obviously this won’t be a concern now, as in his first address to the House of Commons Johnson has already talked up “the potential of our great country.”
However, we all know talk is cheap but to his credit Johnson has thus far backed his words with his appointments, confident that they all share his vision of a successful Britain post-Brexit. Of particular note here should be the appointment of Dominic Raab as Foreign Secretary, who recently suggested that he would be open to the idea of proroguing Parliament in order to pass a no deal Brexit. In fact, Johnson himself has refused to rule out the idea, even if he conceded that it was not an attractive one.
Alongside Johnson and Raab in the four Great Offices of State now sit Sajid Javid – another former Conservative leadership hopeful – and Priti Patel, in the roles of Treasurer and Home Secretary respectively. Javid, interestingly enough, is somewhat the exception in this lineup, having reluctantly voted remain in 2016. Since then though he has thrown his weight behind the Brexit cause and through again, somewhat reluctantly, said he would be happy to leave the European Union with no deal if a new one could not be negotiated.
So while in any other government through the United Kingdom’s modern political history Javid would be seen as an extremist, in the context of one with Johnson as Prime Minister and Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons, Javid could even be viewed as a moderate.
Patel meanwhile most definitely can not share this claim. The new Home Secretary was forced to resign from May’s government after having set up secret diplomatic backchannels with the Israeli leaders without properly informing the government. Patel has also previously voiced her support for bringing back the death penalty and her appointment as Home Secretary has caused human rights groups “extreme concern.”
Another standout name from the rest of the Cabinet is Gavin Williamson, the new Education Secretary who was fired from May’s government after allegedly leaking the details of a National Security Council meeting to mobile giant Huawei. One might also be surprised at the inclusion of Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group and one of the most extreme Brexit supporters around, being named as Leader of the House of Commons.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay has retained his role and Michael Gove has been shuffled around to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, having previously been the Environment Secretary. Business Secretary meanwhile has gone to another hardline Brexiteer in the form of Andrea Leadsom, and somewhat surprisingly, the more moderate Amber Rudd has remained in government as Work and Pensions Secretary.
So with all of the shuffling around now done and with his Cabinet in place the real test will begin. Johnson has 98 days until his deadline of October 31st and there must be no more delays, no more and excuses, and no room for failure.
Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, has already rejected Johnson’s “unacceptable” request to remove the Irish backstop, and the EU more broadly have shown no sense of willingness to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement more broadly. So Johnson clearly has his work cut out for him.
If Johnson cannot extract further concessions from Brussels, as seems likely. Then that leaves only one option, a no deal Brexit. However, bar proroguing parliament, this would still have to clear the House of Commons, which as it stands would be no easy task. Johnson’s majority is currently razor thin and once one factors in rebels such as Rory Stewart in his own party who are firmly against the prospect of a no deal Brexit, that majority becomes none existent.
To further add to Johnson’s misery the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has promised that it would be “unimaginable” for Parliament to not get a say in such a proposal.
This then leaves the United Kingdom with three possibilities for the short term future. The first possibility is that Johnson defies the odds and manages to negotiate an acceptable Withdrawal Agreement in 98 days, something May could not manage in almost three years. The second is that Johnson manages push a no deal Brexit through Parliament, with his efforts to negotiate having failed. Then the third is reserved for all other options having failed, upon which point a General Election would almost certainly be called, with Johnson’s government having failed to achieve the one thing it set out to do: Have us out of the European Union by the 31st of October.
This is the road map for the future of British politics but make no mistake, Labour could yet play a pivotal role. They could still table a motion of no confidence against Johnson and his government, one that could go either way. Additionally, a remain alliance between various anti-Brexit parties as has been suggested by Vince Cable, would be incredibly difficult to ignore. This would be even more the case if Labour pivoted to supporting a second referendum on the issue, or even the revocation of Article 50, either of which could happen if Johnson pursues a no deal Brexit, which would be disastrous for jobs, thereby crossing Jeremy Corbyn’s red line.
Whatever happens it is certainly a turbulent time for British politics but if there is one lesson I feel we can learn for certain at this early point in Johnson’s Premiership it is this: If Brexit cannot be achieved and passed with this Cabinet, then it never will be able to. To be sure, if a General Election is called you will see massive gains for the Liberal Democrats and Greens (as well as the Brexit Party), and any claims for a mandate will be long gone. This is the last chance for the Conservative Party and if Johnson fails then they may be thrown into the political wilderness for many years to come.